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First-year teacher Andy Kwok helps student Dermella Barnett during biology class at Excel High School on Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007, in Oakland, Calif. Kwok has been juggling teaching, graduate school and coaching volleyball. (Jane Tyska/The Oakland Tribune)
Most weekday mornings around 7:05, Andy Kwok picks up the remote, switches off the television and rises from his living room couch. More than 12 hours will pass before the West Oakland biology teacher returns to the quiet comfort of his Fremont apartment.

Some days, it's hard to make it out the door to go to work.

"I just don't want to make that trek over here and endure a lot of tough times from the students," he said.

Kwok, 22, graduated from the University of Michigan this year with extensive knowledge of science — and a layman's understanding of teaching. The St. Louis, Mo., native left his family and friends behind to teach biology at EXCEL, a new high school on the McClymonds campus that aims to send its mostly low-income, African-American students to college.

But singing, cursing and high-volume bickering sometimes overshadow the novice teacher's lesson plans, making him feel more like a babysitter than a high school teacher.

"This is your last warning," he finds

himself saying more often than he'd like.

Every year, the school district hires scores of promising, inexperienced young people to teach in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Those who took a traditional route to the profession have student teaching andeducational theory under their belts. Others, such as Kwok, go directly to the classroom through partnership programs such as Oakland Teaching Fellows and Teach for America.

And, as in many urban school districts, many of them soon leave for new schools, new districts, new positions, or new professions. Last year, some 20 novice teachers left their jobs in Oakland schools by the end of the first semester.

Teacher turnover — especially in Oakland's "flatlands" schools, such as EXCEL — is seen as one of the school system's largest obstacles. Principals say the instability makes it harder for children to learn and for improvements to stick. A study released in June by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimated teacher turnover costs Oakland about $12 million a year in recruitment, training and processing costs.

Tom Carroll, president of the research and advocacy group that conducted the study, said Oakland has done a remarkable job of recruiting strong candidates through its partnership programs. But that isn't enough, he said.

"What we're seeing is these young, energetic people who are thrown into the most challenging schools and classrooms in the district. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to the students," Carroll said. "It's November now, and it's when new teachers in his situation tend to hit the wall. We see this pattern over and over, around the country."

'Pace yourself'

Last month, Kwok's second period discussion on photosynthesis didn't go very far. There was the incessant talking in the back row. The music players. The singing. The textbook thrown in the singer's direction.

"Mr. Kwok, tell him to stop talking before I slap his (expletive) ass," one girl said.

Kwok sighed. He chided the student for cursing in class, but he later acknowledged he understood her frustration.

Not every class is so difficult. The next group of students, as usual, went straight to their seats and began working on the "warm-up" question with little prompting. For a few moments, the only sound in the overheated room was the soft scratch of pens on paper.

Kwok smiled to himself.

"Thank you guys for writing this down quietly," he said.

EXCEL's principal, Yetunde Reeves, and her staff want Kwok to feel supported. They see his potential. They know his students will learn more as he grows into a skillful and experienced teacher.

"You need to pace yourself to make it through the year," third-year math teacher Michael Raines said to Kwok during a break between classes. "The year before last, we lost the entire science program."

If Kwok leaves, another rookie will likely take his place. Most of Oakland's new hires are also new to the profession.

EXCEL High School and another small school, BEST, were opened in 2005 in an effort to change the culture of low expectations, academic failure and chaos that is said to have pervaded the McClymonds campus when it was a comprehensive school.

EXCEL's roughly 300 students must receive a "C," rather than a "D," to pass, and they are supposed to turn in tardy slips if they arrive late to class. The principal knows most of the students' names and many of their personal histories. The school has added advanced placement courses, and every student is expected to go to college.

It was that philosophy, combined with Reeves' leadership, that drew Kwok to EXCEL. But so far, the inspirational "teaching moments" Kwok had hoped to experience have been scarce. Kwok worries about the students who seem almost determined to fail.

"Some of them haven't even shown me a glimpse that they can succeed," he said.

After the first six-week marking period, about three-quarters of Kwok's students were failing biology — mostly because of missing work. In response, Kwok lightened up on the homework demands, but about half of his students are still on track to flunk the class. Some have outright zeros.

Kwok estimates that 10 percent of the students on his roster are chronically truant. Others have joined his classes as late as this month after counselors realized they were shy of the necessary credits to graduate and attend college. Last week, during his sixth-period class, only 10 of 17 students were present, a normal attendance rate, he said.

Some of those who come to class regularly sit near the front and raise their hands. At times, when the disruption becomes unbearable, they yell at the others to shut up.

Others look for any excuse to leave class or to ignore what is happening at the front of the room.

"What time do we get out?" one student interrupted a recent lesson to ask, as his classmate pounded a beat on a lab table with his fists.

"10," Kwok answered, saying nothing about the noise. He, too, had been watching the clock.

A role-reversal

Nearly three months into the school year, the thought of retreat has crossed Kwok's mind many times. At least two of his fellow rookies from the Oakland Teaching Fellows program have already quit.

'I've definitely had moments of 'I can't do this,' and 'I don't want to go in tomorrow,'" he said.

In addition to his teaching and lesson planning, Kwok's work day has included about 90 minutes of driving, practices or games for the girls volleyball team he coaches, and two evening credentialing classes each week at California State University, East Bay.

Late last month, in an ironic role-reversal, one of the instructors reprimanded Kwok for doing other work in class. The instructor warned him that his attendance wouldn't be counted if he didn't participate and stay for the rest of the four-hour class, he said. Kwok usually leaves early.

"I definitely felt like one of my students," he said afterward.

Kwok says the night courses have been more time-consuming than helpful. His most valuable teaching lessons have come from his assistant principal, Julie Dana, his principal and his fellow teachers, many of whom are also fairly new to the profession. He sometimes spends his free period observing other teachers.

Dana visits Kwok's classroom at least once a week and transcribes, word for word, what he and the students say. Then, after class, she asks him questions about what she saw. She gives him tips on how to assess whether the students are grasping the material and on how to handle disciplinary problems.

But more often than not, Kwok is alone in his classroom, left to figure out on his own what it means to be a teacher at EXCEL High School.

On those difficult Monday mornings when Kwok is tempted to stay in front of his television, he thinks of his students.

There is Sunshine Parker, who scowls at the antics of her classmates as she tries to pay attention. Robert Brigham, who recently implored Kwok to do something about the "sensitive" R&B album playing on his laptop computer. And all of the players he coached on the new girls volleyball team.

Kwok has also taken at least three personal days, with the blessing of his principal.

"People have to learn how to create breaks for themselves," Reeves said. "Otherwise you suffer in silence. You have a bad day and you go home saying, 'Oh, I'm a horrible teacher. Why did I go into this profession?'"

Small victories

Recently, Reeves sensed a negative vibe from her teaching staff that made her uneasy, so she changed the agenda of that week's staff meeting. The group spent 40 minutes discussing ways to avoid burnout; one suggestion was to plan activities that are less "teacher-centered."

Shortly after that session, Kwok tried something new. Instead of lecturing to the class, he asked the students to review course material through self-directed projects. He thought they might learn more that way. He knew it would spare him some stress as well.

"It's very relaxing for me," he said.

Wearing a University of Michigan sweatshirt, Kwok walked around the room, answering questions and keeping students on task as they created games and other activities around one of the topics the class had covered. The project proved to be a small, but important victory.

Kwok pointed to a boy in the back, a bright kid who hadn't done a bit of work — until now. He said another student, one who often gives him trouble, took on a research paper, the most difficult project.

"I'm kind of excited about this one," he added, opening the door to a staff room where some of the student projects were stored.

Inside was a large board game a student had made. It was named "Glamorous Chemical Properties."

During moments like these, the life Kwok has made for himself in California, away from his family, seems to make sense. But he is still taking his commitment day by day.

"Teaching is something I still want to do," he said. "It's a matter of staying here or not."

Contact Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com or 510-208-6424. Read her Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.